Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Jan. 15 he will oppose Chuck Hagel's nomination to be the next defense secretary. (Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty Images)
A key Republican senator says he will join several GOP colleagues in opposing the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become defense secretary, a key development in an increasingly politically charged confirmation fight.
In a statement issued Tuesday evening, incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member James Inhofe, R-Okla., called Hagel "a good person." But a one-on-one meeting earlier in the day led Inhofe to conclude the senators are "too philosophically opposed" on major issues for the SASC ranking member to support Hagel's nomination.
Inhofe's opposition could prove key because other SASC and Senate Republicans could take it as a cue as to how GOP leaders expect them to vote. With Democrats holding a 55-45 seat majority, they would need at least five Republicans to stave off a filibuster — or the threat of one.
"Chuck Hagel is a good person, and it was a pleasure to serve with him in the United States Senate. I am so very appreciative of the sacrifices he and his brother made to serve this country during the Vietnam War," Inhofe said in the statement. "We had a very cordial meeting today in which we discussed his nomination.
"Unfortunately, as I told him during our meeting today, we are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination," Inhofe said.
The first major difference Inhofe mentioned was over the necessary size of the annual Defense Department budget, which is slated to be around $530 billion in fiscal 2013.
"One of my biggest concerns is avoiding Obama's sequestration that, as Secretary [Leon] Panetta has said, would be devastating to our military," Inhofe said of a $500 billion, 10-year cut to planned DoD spending set to kick in March 1 unless Washington strikes a $1.2 trillion deficit-reduction deal. "However, Senator Hagel's comments have not demonstrated that same level of concern about the pending defense cuts."
Inhofe next dubbed Hagel an "outspoken supporter of nuclear disarmament."
Congressional Republicans don't just oppose the Obama administration's aims to shrink the U.S. atomic arsenal, some want to increase the nuclear fleet.
"This administration has already put us in a more vulnerable position by drastically cutting our nuclear defense budget," the SASC ranking member said.
Republicans and pro-Israel groups that are opposing Hagel's nomination are labeling him anti-Israel. They point to a 2008 interview he gave to author Aaron David Miller in which the former senator said, "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." He noted, as a senator, he never recalled signing policy letters sent around Capitol Hill by AIPAC, a leading pro-Israel advocacy organization, because "I'm a United States senator ... not an Israeli senator."
Hagel allegedly told Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a Jewish lawmaker, on Jan. 14 that he "regrets" those words, according to a Jan. 15 statement from Schumer.
Several sources close to Hagel noted in conversations on Jan. 14 that only a few Republican senators have indicated definitively they would vote no on Hagel's nomination.
One is Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas, who says he "will not support Chuck Hagel's nomination to the Department of Defense [because] his record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me.
"[Hagel's] opposition to Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security. To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas," Cornyn said last week. "As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel."
Influential Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also has said he will oppose Hagel, whom he called an "in-your-face" nominee.
Inhofe also cited Hagel's views on Israel, as well as comments and actions he has taken as a senator and after his years in the upper chamber on Iran.
"On Iran and Israel, Senator Hagel's record concerns me as well. In 2000, he was one of just four senators who refused to sign a letter affirming U.S. solidarity with Israel," Inhofe said.
"In 2001 he was one of just two senators who voted against extending the sanctions against Iran. A year later, he urged the [George W.] Bush administration to support Iranian membership in the World Trade Organization," Inhofe said. "Given the current tension in the Middle East that is largely being instigated by the Iranian regime, I am concerned with Senator Hagel's views."
Inhofe made a point to note although he and Hagel hold different policy views, "we are still friends." He painted his opposition as "one of those rare times when policy differences don't stand in the way of personal relationships."
Several Washington insiders told Defense News last week they were watching for indications of how a handful of key senators on both sides of the aisle would vote. Inhofe made that list. So, too, did Schumer.
Earlier on Jan. 15, Schumer breathed new life into Hagel's confirmation teamby announcing the nominee had, during a Jan. 14 meeting, assuaged all of his concerns.
In nearly 10 interviews conducted Jan. 14 and 15, former Hagel aides indicated many of the policy and personal attacks directed at the nominee since early December have been taken out of context and do not reflect his actual — more nuanced — views.
Beth Sanzone, who worked for Hagel from 2000 until 2004 called the GOP attacks on her former boss's views on Israel and Iran "very unfortunate and unfounded."
"If you break down his policy views, he always has been a strong supporter of Israel and worked to strengthen the relationship," Sanzone said Jan. 15. "He made three visits [to Israel] when I was there.
"When you look at his collective record … it proves he is committed to providing whatever military aid is necessary to Israel," she said.
On Iran, Sanzone said Hagel is "very aware of realities" about Tehran's nuclear arms ambitions.
"His point has been that unilateral sanctions are not enough, that you have to have a multilateral approach," Sanzone said, noting that is just what the Obama administration has implemented. "So, for [Hagel], it's looking at this holistically — that's how he views all of these issues."